IT DOESN’T GET any easier for Ireland this year.
Having battled the Springboks over three Tests on their home turf, Joe Schmidt’s squad are returning home for a well-earned break but the next time they report to Carton House for duty, they will be preparing for a seismic autumn series.
Two meetings with the All Blacks [in Chicago and Dublin] will focus the mind next November not to mention a clash with Michael Cheika’s wounded Wallabies later in the series.
Despite the crushing disappointment of the defeats in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, there are real positives to be taken from this tour.
The emergence of Paddy Jackson, Tadhg Furlong and Ultan Dillane were just some of the success stories. Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall will now provide real depth in the midfield while Tiernan O’Halloran, Matt Healy and Quinn Roux all earned their first international Test caps in one of the most hostile environments in world rugby.
With Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald and the Kearney brothers all set to return to the fray next season, Ireland now have a squad that is a match for any of the heavyweights, including Steve Hansen’s men.
For Iain Henderson, that encounter with New Zealand at Soldier Field on 5 November will be another chance for this young Irish squad to break new ground.
“No Irish team has ever beaten the All Blacks and I don’t see any reason why we can’t.
“We’ve got two opportunities to go and do it and hopefully in Chicago we can look to turn them over there and, if that happens, we’ll look to build on it the next week and the next week and go from there.”
These are exciting times for Irish rugby. The senior and U20 sides may have fallen at the final hurdle last weekend but there is vast potential across the board and with all four Irish provinces competing in the European Champions Cup, plenty of these young players will be afforded the opportunity to test themselves against top-level opposition.
At the end of next season looms the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand to add further motivation to the mix. The majority of this Irish squad will be reaching their prime by the 2019 World Cup. All positives, but one key factor remains unresolved, the future of head coach Joe Schmidt.
The Kiwi has yet to decide on his long-term future [his Ireland contract expires in June 2017] and is set to make an announcement next month, following a holiday in his native New Zealand.
For the likes of Henderson, it is imperative that Schmidt stays on and continues this Irish evolution.
“The terms Joe and detail are linked together, everyone says it but I think that because, not only in terms of rugby, his whole job detail. Players feel that he has such an impact on them and makes them feel that they can be better and can always get better,” said the 24-year-old.
“That’s one thing he adds to the younger players and I know the older players feel that he’s always adding to them as well.
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“Joe is someone who is constantly striving for perfection in everything he does. Not only players, but management and staff, everyone has learnt from him and everyone that has learnt from him it’s been a part of bringing Irish rugby from what it was in my first Six Nations when we lost to Italy and that Scotland game.
“Off the back of those results, Joe has turned things around and it’s been massive for Irish rugby.”
Henderson produced a typical barnstorming display against the Boks at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, the sort of display that Irish supporters take for granted these days.
Big carries, aggressive tackles and a memorable strip on Faf de Klerk featured throughout an all-action 60-minute shift from the Ulster man. Henderson was forced to watch the thrilling final quarter from the bench having been replaced by Dillane, who made his presence felt as per usual.
Trailing by six points, Ireland battered the Boks line in a pulsating final assault but the home side, spearheaded by De Klerk’s defensive interventions, held out for to secure the series.
“Fair play to South Africa, they defended brilliantly and kept us off their line. Faf de Klerk had a try saving interception when wee Jacko [Paddy Jackson] potentially could have gone himself and on another day we could have the game, but we’ll learn from this and move forward and look forward to having a good autumn series.
“We’ll enjoy our time off and make sure we learn from it.”
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Willie le Roux has been cited for his challenge on Tiernan O’Halloran